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“Line of Fire” Barely Sparks 

Richmond’s the backdrop for a new ABC series, unfortunately it has nothing to do with the city and it’s not very good anyway.

The yin and yang that bring what tension there is to “Line of Fire” are the agents of the local FBI office and the members of an organized crime syndicate operating in Richmond. The dramatic opening scenes of the series pilot establish the conflict: After a wild foot-chase through the warehouse district, an FBI agent and a mobster face off in a dumpster and shoot each other to death.

The primary focus of the series is on the special agent in charge of the Richmond FBI office (Leslie Hope), a newly minted FBI agent just out of Quantico (Leslie Bibb), the mob boss (David Paymer) and a mysterious character who just finished a three-year prison sentence (Anson Mount). All except Paymer fit the prime-time formula. In a word, they’re hot.

Paymer, however, as crime boss Jonah Malloy, is by far the most interesting character. “We may be at war here,” he declares shortly after the turbulent opening scenes. He’s a mobster who respects loyalty (except when it’s to somebody other than himself), who loves his family but is afraid of becoming a father, and who never hires anybody to become a part of his syndicate without doing what he calls “due diligence” to verify their bona fides. He also has no qualms about ordering an underling to destroy the hands of a football player with a sledgehammer for not throwing a game, or to personally beat the living daylights out of a dealer who sold crack to his nephew. His face is a chilling, dichotomous mask of paternal concern and savage brutality. Malloy is distinctly a crime boss for the new millennium.

Bibb, who plays new FBI agent Paige Van Doren, is better than the material she’s given to work with. Her character, who proves to be a lone ranger even while in training, shows promise up until the moment she explains why she should be allowed to become a full-fledged agent. She tells a review board that her husband was killed in the Pentagon on 9-11 and that she made a vow over his grave at Arlington to catch the terrorists behind the attack. The whole scene is so hokey and lacking in sincerity that the audience waits for a punch line that never comes.

But the series is filmed on location in Richmond. At least we have that to keep us watching. Or do we? In actual fact, the series is so generic that it could have been filmed in most any American city. Rarely does it showcase Richmond specifically, and occasionally a character will say something that is just plain wrong. For example, Richmond has an East End, not an East Side. Some fact-checker should have fixed that. It’s hard to hide Richmond’s light under a bushel, however, and viewers who pay attention to the scenery will recognize downtown landmarks such as the State Capitol and Old City Hall, venerable Old Richmond neighborhoods such as Jackson Ward and Church Hill, and popular eateries such as Davis & Main.

Richmond theatergoers will also recognize a number of area actors in the show’s pilot episode, among them Stan Kelly, Michael Kennedy, Joe Inscoe, Rodney Hobbs, David Bridgewater, Andy Boothby, Heidi Pankoff, Kirk Penberthy and Beau Marie.

Rod Lurie, who created “Line of Fire” and is the series’ executive producer, likes Richmond. He got a taste of the city and what it’s like to work in Richmond three years ago when he directed Christian Slater and Jeff Bridges in “The Contender.” He’s the one who decided that “Line of Fire” should be set in Virginia’s capital city.

Richmond is a unique place, a city where the past fights with the present. A breathtakingly beautiful city with one of the grandest and most stately boulevards in the world. A city that faces the same seemingly insoluble crime and race problems that plague cities throughout the United States. A city that natives take delight in complaining about — until they hear the first disparaging word from an outsider. A city where hordes will gather to mourn the death of a light bulb.

But you don’t see the beauty of Richmond or its real problems with crime in this series. Instead, it’s a standard-issue mob drama seemingly created out of whole cloth. This could be overlooked, even by Richmonders, if “Line of Fire” were riveting television. But it’s not. S



“Line of Fire” debuts Tuesday, Dec. 2, at 10 p.m. on ABC TV as a midseason replacement.
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